US tied to world community

Traveling the country as part of a presidential candidate’s advance and media team some 35 years ago, I developed an affinity for what we called the “taxi driver poll.” The idea was that wherever you landed in America you could get an instant read on local political moods simply by talking to the cabbie who drove you from the airport into town. 

With the cultural and demographic changes in the country since, that crude snapshot of local thinking has lost its salience. But on the ride from Heathrow to downtown London a few weeks ago, I discovered that the drivers of those iconic black cabs are still founts of local wisdom — and often are doing the polling instead of the folks in the backseat.

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The rest of the world, it seems, is fascinated with America and a whole lot better informed about what is going on between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans than we are about happenings across the pond.  “So how is your new man in the White House doing?” was the opener — followed quickly by “And what is this Tea Party business all about?” One driver was “happy to see the back of” both his Labour Party and our President George W. Bush. All were keenly interested in how America’s seemingly tumultuous politics would affect their economic and physical well-being. As we seem to be growing more and more America-centric, the world continues to view us as an important if unpredictable influence on its future. 

From London cabbies to members of Parliament — and later, from a delegation of Chinese businesspeople — there was a surprising level of awareness about politics in America. Importantly, there was also a high level of concern — especially as regards international cooperation between the U.S. and their countries. The Brits were particularly worried about what they saw as an unwillingness to share military technology and a somewhat xenophobic view of international terrorism on the part of their American “cousins.” The Chinese worried that policy differences on a range of issues, from Taiwan to the exploration of space, were holding back economic growth and regional security. “Why is it all right for Indian missiles to carry American satellites into space but not for Chinese rockets?” one business entrepreneur wondered. And if China and America will be sharing world leadership in the future, as they are convinced will happen, can’t we all just get along?

I’m certainly not going to argue that business and political leaders around the world — as well as rank-and-file citizens — are not looking out for their own self-interest. But in these conversations I was struck by the knowledge of and concern about political change in America. Most believed that American voters had endorsed a more inclusive and open-minded attitude about the world when we elected Barack Obama president. Now they wonder if what they see as America’s increasingly insular view represents a return to the isolationist and sometimes xenophobic views of the Cold War and, to some degree, of the Bush administration. Whether they were supporters of Labour, the Tories or the Lib-Dems in London, they all believed that the tides of American public opinion washed on their shores. 

In Beijing they believed that American attitudes were a powerful driver of their government’s policies. They worried not so much about the posturing of politicians in an off-year election but whether those actions and statements were actually reflective of American voters. To them, economic cooperation was the bridge to a more secure future and a more open China. They feared that a hardening of political attitudes in the U.S. served only to slow that process.

So the international “taxi poll” served to educate this occasional globetrotter on several points. The world continues to watch the evolution of American politics with a combination of fascination and concern. What happens here matters over there — whether it is across the Atlantic or the Pacific. There is arguably a much higher level of knowledge and awareness of American politics in Europe and Asia than there is of the politics on either continent here in the U.S. And most important, we are not alone. America continues to be tied to the world community to a degree that is beyond our control. As we struggle to rebuild our economy, we need to be aware of the impact the rest of the world will have on our future and the importance the decisions we make will have on the rest of the world.


Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen. E-mail: ben@gcsa.com